Notes by Autumn Light

On Hebrew, English, translation, editing, and more—by Jonathan Orr-Stav


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In-At-On

One of the recurring problems for ESL (English as a Second Language) learners and other non-native English speakers is what preposition to use with regard to location—specifically, in, at, or on.

This varies seemingly unpredictably, so that one says:

  • in the room, but at the house, and on the street
  • in Parliament, but at the Legislature.

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Q: Would using the pronouns they, them, and their, along with an individual’s name, eliminate the need for alternative pronouns?

The lack of a neutral pronoun in English is a persistent thorn in the side of academic writing—especially given that, with the growing demands for gender equality, the old-fashioned use of the masculine form for generic descriptions is increasingly frowned upon.

220px-hen_-_the_swedish_pronoun-svgAs a translator and editor, I frequently witness what a serious headache this problem is for my academic clients. It would be good if we could do what Swedish has done, which is adopt a new word for the purpose (hen—which is between hon [she] and han [he]). But as far as I know, there is nothing like that on the horizon (perhaps se—pron. /si/—a blend of she and he?).

So we are forced to improvise.

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Has English grammar become part of Hebrew recently?

—such as I’m going to+verb, or more+<adverb/adjective> instead of <adverb/adjective>+more?

Answer: Actually, I would argue that modern Hebrew is fairly resistant to English grammatical forms—mainly because its grammar is much simpler (comprising the equivalent of past simple, present simple, and simple future), with no mechanisms for emulating tenses such as present perfect (e.g. I have gone) or present continuous (e.g. going) or conditional (would go).

As a result, the sample constructions that you suggest — e.g. going to <verb> and more <adjective> (instead of <adjective> more) are not only uncommon, but indicative of poor Hebrew usage.

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What is correct: ‘Here is a bag and a pen’, or ‘here are a bag and a pen’?

This is a classic mongoose question—one of my favourite kind—so-called after the story of a South African farmer who, concerned about an influx of poisonous snakes on his land, tentatively agreed to a Ministry of Agriculture official’s suggestion that he adopt a mongoose (which is very adept at hunting snakes).

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What are the rules for making an nationality adjective out of a country name?

This is a wonderful illustration of how, when it comes to language, there is only one hard-and-fast rule: UISS-IWC-MINS (Unless It Sounds Silly–In Which Case, Make It Not So)—or UISS, for short. The rest are all guidelines.

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